Ria Story was not raised to become someone who would stand on a stage and speak her truth.
Parts of her story are difficult to hear, to imagine. In the end, though, it is a tale of triumph.
Ria grew up on a remote street in rural Georgia where her family had no close neighbors. The sense of isolation touched every part of her early life. Ria was homeschooled from kindergarten through 12th grade. Her father controlled her circle of friends. When Ria’s parents became emotionally estranged, her father turned Ria and her brother against their mother.
When Ria turned 12, her father’s abuse turned sexual. He ordered her to keep the abuse a secret, and Ria complied. He had spent years grooming her to be completely obedient.
“What I didn’t have was privacy, freedom, or even a sense of self-worth. I also didn’t have a shred of hope. Life becomes very dark when you have no hope.”
Ria’s father sexually abused her for more than seven years. In her book “Bridges Out Of The Past,” Ria describes the sweeping toll of her father’s abuse: Ria mustered the courage to leave home for good as a young adult. She built a successful marriage, and a successful career as a director of corporate compliance for a hospital.
The story of her childhood abuse remained buried.
“I was always interested in being a speaker,” Ria said, “as long as I didn’t have to talk about me.”
She wasn’t planning to begin telling it when she eventually did. Ria and her husband, Mack, were attending a training session on how to create and deliver an effective speech. At the end of the two-day training, participants gave short speeches and the trainers would choose a winner. The prize was a trip to Los Angeles to share a stage with motivational speaker Les Brown.
Ria had no intention of publicizing her past when the training began. She merely wanted to improve a skill that she used in her job. Only a few of Ria’s family members and close friends knew she had been abused. “The morning of the contest,” she said, “I had a meltdown―mascara running, crying. ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t want people to see me as a victim, to see me vulnerable.’ This bond of shame had been over me for so long. If you’re a person of faith, it’s a defining moment: I could use what happened to me help someone else realize that what happened to you doesn’t define you.”
Ria’s speech about growing up in an abusive household lasted 47 seconds. She won the contest. The experience motivated Ria to motivate others so powerfully, she quit her job at the hospital. She cashed in her retirement savings and set out to become a full-time motivational speaker.
“I had no business plan, and no clue how difficult it would be to get into this space―which is probably good,” Ria said. “Would anybody ever do it if they knew how difficult it was?”
Maybe not. Long before she spoke to groups of 1,500 people, to Fortune 100 companies, or the United States military, Ria had to begin a career from scratch. Sometimes that meant cold calls to the local Kiwanis club, seeking a willing audience wherever one existed. Often, it meant unpolished speeches with uninspiring messages. In the process of writing several books and giving even more small-group talks, Ria unearthed an essential lesson for anyone who’s hidden an important piece of her life.
“What we won’t talk about or are ashamed of, we give those things power,” she said. “By talking about them, we’re able to overcome them easier.”
Speaking in Wilmington, Delaware as part of the TEDx Women’s Conference, Ria described hiding her past as an act of survival. Sharing her story was an act of resilience.
“I worked so hard to create this image in my head of being strong, tough, nothing can touch me,” she said. “I learned to be effective at numbing emotions. Embracing that fear of people seeing me differently, I was able to move past it. It opened up a range of emotions. I cry more easily. I also feel more joy.”